Inside: Ideas and advice to design the perfect Joshua Tree RV camping trip, including where to rent an RV, van, or camping equipment
Who’s had enough of staying at home? Are you raising your hand? Same! But I know, it’s HARD to figure out where to go while also keeping everyone around you safe from COVID.
If you live in Southern California, Joshua Tree National Park is the absolutely perfect place for a safe escape. Yes, it is out in the Mojave Desert (actually it covers both the Mojave and Colorado deserts), so it is not the most obvious summertime destination. But it actually makes a perfect summertime escape if you do just a bit of planning.
By the time you’ve finished reading this post, you’ll have all the resources you need to explore Joshua Tree National Park with confidence. You’ll know how to prepare for the heat, where the best campsites are and how to snag them, and what the main attractions are like – enough to pick and choose your itinerary, be it a day, a weekend, or an extended stay in the park.
Imagine yourself out in a vast wilderness of trees that look like they popped out of a Dr. Seuss picture book. Scattered among this unending expanse of Joshua trees are ginormous formations of sand-colored boulders that haphazardly rise out of the earth like petrified giants of fairy tale realms. There is no landscape like it anywhere.
Then imagine waking up to the craziest psychedelic sunrise backlighting those very same Joshua Trees and boulders.
And then imagine ending your day watching the sky turn a dreamy rose and lavender hue as the sun sets behind a mass of boulders.
The sunset flows into the darkest of nights where no sound can be heard other than the occasional celebratory yet eerie cackling of coyotes.
Look up into the night sky, and you’ll see more stars than you ever imagined existed.
That is Joshua Tree National Park. This is Joshua Tree RV Camping.
Need to rent an RV or van?
If you are a novice to camping or consider yourself “vanlife-curious”, there is no need to invest in loads of camping equipment or buy a van or RV before heading out. More and more companies are offering rental equipment or vehicles.
If you want to try Van or RV camping, here’s your opportunity. Try Outdoorsy or RVShare to find your dream rental camping vehicle. Both are pretty much like AirBnB for RVs and vans. Vancraft is another rental option in San Diego.
Because Joshua Tree is near LA and San Diego, there are often loads of options available. Additional RV, trailer, and van rental options are discussed in this recent article.
FYI, I have no personal experience renting from these companies and am not an affiliate. If you do have experience or can recommend a company, let us know in the comments.
Want to try out tent-camping?
If you want to keep it more low key and prefer to try out tent camping but have no gear, you can also go the rental route. Rent a full camping package from Outdoorsgeek. They mail it right to your door.
I have my new Glampervan to test out, however, so I recently took it for its maiden voyage dry-camping (camping with no hookups or external water sources) in Joshua Tree for one week during a regional heat warning. Was I crazy? Not at all. I was careful. And I had a blast.
Joshua Tree National Park is located in southeast California, within 2-3 hours drive of Los Angeles or San Diego. It rests between Route 62 on the north and Interstate 10 on the south. There are three entrances, 2 along Route 62 and one near Interstate 10. The main entrance, closest to the most popular campgrounds within the park is the west entrance off of Route 62 and near the town of Joshua Tree.
For Detailed directions, click the button.
Click on the map of Joshua Tree National Park below to go to the enlargeable image and downloadable PDF versions:
Things you need to know about RVs in Joshua tree
Joshua tree is an ideal destination for van or class B RV camping – you can go just about anywhere and use any campsite. Car, truck, or tent camping is also an option. Note, however, that very long RVs (>35 feet) are not allowed in any of Joshua Tree’s campgrounds, and Hidden Valley and White Tank campgrounds restrict RVs to under 25 feet.
What about COVID?
It is easy to maintain COVID-19 mandated social distancing inside Joshua Tree when RV camping. Loop trails are marked to navigate in one direction and with the massive amount of space and a relatively small number of visitors, you won’t need to get close to other people and their germs. What you will miss are the fantastic Ranger Programs and guided tours – all are canceled for the summer.
Always check the park’s web page for up to date information on closures and other alerts related to the ongoing pandemic. As you know – these change frequently.
It’s hot, but not THAT hot
Summertime in Joshua Tree is hot. Even so, because the western half of the park is generally over 4000 feet elevation, the temperature extremes are less than the low-altitude eastern half. That’s good because most of the Joshua trees, rock formation, and trails are found in the western region.
Before you head out, check the specific weather forecast for the northern/western region of the park. Park weather is NOT the same as in the adjacent towns of Joshua Tree or 29 Palms, where it is typically much hotter due to their low elevation.
I suggest NOT going to Joshua Tree NP is the predicted highs at the higher elevation sites are going to be over 100. If they are in the low to mid 90’s, as they were when I visited you can explore in the mornings and evenings and take a break during the peak of the day.
For example, when I was there, the daily highs in the Hidden Valley Campground where I stayed were 15-20 degrees cooler than in 29 Palms. When I drove into town one day, the temperature was registering 113 F, but the high was only 95 F at my campground.
Because it’s a dry heat, it’s not as insufferable (in my opinion) as the same temperature would be in Florida or Iowa (where I grew up).
Midday is siesta time
Nevertheless, it is hot during the middle of the day, so plan for a midday siesta. This is a good thing. Slow down. Do your hiking in the early morning or at dusk. Try not to rush your visit. You can drive through or camp for just one night, but you get the best experience when you slow down, take in a smaller hike or two each day and otherwise experience the beauty and quiet. Save the strenuous hikes for another season.
There is another advantage of a daily nap in Joshua Tree: having more awake time at night – when sky watching rules! Summertime lows are around 65-70 F, perfect for sleeping out under the stars. Because you’re in the desert mosquitos are not an issue, and I also found very few flies.
Bees are another story – I’ll tell you about them later on.
Tips for star viewing
Do be aware of the moon cycle when you camp, though. Full or almost full moons can block a lot of star viewing. There will still be plenty, but new moons are optimal.
One of my absolute favorite memories from my trip was opening my eyes just after midnight and seeing the brightest Big Dipper I have ever seen. It was better than being in the grandest planetarium show.
That same night my sky viewing was accompanied by the chorus of a band of coyotes. If you have never been serenaded by coyotes, it is something to add to your bucket list.
What about water and electricity?
You must bring your own water. There is no place to get water in Joshua Tree National Park except the northwest entrance. There are no electric hookups, no dump stations, and almost no cell phone reception.
Bring plenty of water with you, and then some extra for good measure. Plan on 2 gallons per person per day in the summer. Also, bring along some electrolyte-containing beverages like Gatorade. Under normal circumstances, I never drink these. Ever. But I craved them during my camping time in Joshua Tree. I packed the small (12 oz) size and kept a few in my refrigerator. They seriously hit the spot after hiking. I finally understood why my soccer-playing kids craved this drink.
If you do run low, the town of Joshua Tree is close by – about 20-30 minutes from Hidden Valley. The town is pretty small, but you can get gas and minimal food supplies there.
If you have a generator, you can use it in Joshua Tree, but only during specific hours of the day (7-9 am, noon-2 pm and 5-7 pm). Remember, some of the primo campgrounds (Hidden Valley and White Tank) are off-limits to RVs >25 feet long.
Solar power is an excellent option in Joshua Tree. The sun is almost always shining, parking spots are not shaded, and you can use your electricity anytime. I cooked dinner every night and used my toaster oven in the morning and barely made a dent in my electric reserves (340 W solar system and 2 Li Batteries).
My van is well insulated and with the side door open and the two ceiling fans on it still remained several degrees cooler than outdoors during the day.
Cell phones and internet
Be ready to go off the grid when camping in Joshua Tree. There is almost no service – and I tried. However, you can get a strong signal, at least with my provider (ATT), at the northwest entrance station. It’s easy to park, and no one seems to care if you hang around a while. I parked here facing off into the park with a nice view while I caught up on email and called into a Zoom meeting (because I wasn’t going to miss my book club). I just used my phone as a hotspot.
Another site with reliable service is Keys View lookout point. You can park and have a panoramic view of the entire Coachella Valley while checking in with your social media.
Basically, the higher up you go, the better the signal. I hear there are often strong signals on the tops of boulders too, but I am not a climber, so I’ll leave that option to those with no fear of heights.
Where to camp
From May to September, all the campgrounds are first-come, first-served. No reservations are taken.
That means, to get a good campsite, you need to arrive in the morning – about 9-10 am. You have a better chance of snagging a good (or any) spot if your first day is Monday-Thursday. Don’t expect to find an open campsite on the weekend, especially late in the day. Every day I watched a parade of cars and campers drive by between 4-6:00 looking for a vacancy. They were out of luck.
If you do end up with no campsite, free BLM camping and private campgrounds are available outside the park – but it will be hotter.
Claiming a campsite and paying for it
Getting dibs on a first-come, first-served campsite can be confusing your first time doing it. Here are the steps:
- At the entrance to a campground, there’s a small kiosk and pull out area. It looks like a metal box on top of a post – nothing fancy.
- Stop at the kiosk and pick up a reservation tag/envelope.
- Drive around and find an open spot. Do not assume an empty place is open for the taking. For instance, because I van camp when I am out exploring, my site looks unoccupied. Look for the little post stuck in the ground at each location (see photo below). If a tag is clipped to it, it is likely taken. You can check the dates on the tag to confirm this.
- If the site is unclaimed, fill out the tag with the days you’ll be staying and clip it to the post.
- Put your money in the envelope and fill out the requested information. Note – ONLY CASH OR PERSONAL CHECKS ARE ACCEPTED.
- Take your envelope, with payment, back to the kiosk at the campground entrance, and insert it into the lockbox.
What to do if someone tries to squat in your spot
Yeah, it happens. Once, I returned to my campsite at the end of the day and found a couple asleep in a tent right in the middle of my site. Feeling a bit like the three bears discovering Goldilocks, I woke them up and explained they were in my spot. This was a weekend evening, so they were basically out of luck. I had no desire to ruin their campout and they seemed nice, so I invited them to camp off to the side but still within my campground as long as they were quiet. It worked out and I made a couple of friends.
Weekends are rowdier
Weekends can get a little testy for people trying to find a spot. I recommend being “home” in the 4-7:00 time range to make sure a squatter doesn’t try and snag your spot. You can also leave a folding chair or another item out to show the spot is taken.
Weekends are also a little bit louder in Hidden Valley. It seems to be a favorite of rock climbers and the party crowd of Joshua Tree. I found it fun people watching, and everyone complied with the quiet hours, but over the weekend there was definitely music playing in the early evening. Do expect more activity on the weekends.
Which campground is best?
It depends, but after looking at most of the options I think Hidden Valley, Ryan, or Jumbo Rocks are the best. Each has different features. All campsites have a place for at least one vehicle to park and are equipped with a fire ring and picnic table.
Hidden Valley, Ryan, and Jumbo Rocks are all $15.00/night.
During my trip, I stayed in Hidden Valley, one of the smaller campgrounds, and the closest (about a 15-minute drive) to the northwest entrance. This was the right decision for me.
Hidden Valley has amazing rock formations, and each site is reasonably private. I had site #39 and could not see any other campers. It had a beautiful flat parking area that was easy to back into. My van is only 12-feet long so I can park it almost anywhere. It only required a bit of leveling.
Hidden Valley is also within walking/hiking distance of Hidden Valley hiking. I went over there multiple times because it is absolutely gorgeous and an excellent shorter hike.
If Hidden Valley was full, Ryan campground would be my second choice. While it still has rock formations, it is a little more open and the sites are not as private as Hidden Valley, but it is still gorgeous. The ranger said it is also quieter than Hidden Valley on the weekends.
My third choice would be the Jumbo Rocks campground, which is within hiking distance of Skull Rock and other easy trails. It’s one of the larger campgrounds with 124 campsites. Also, there is an amphitheater hosting ranger programs – but in COVID times, these are not happening. This is a good option for larger RV’s
ALERT – I just noticed that Jumbo Rocks is closed from July 9-23, 2020 because of aggressive honey bees (see the next section). I’m sure glad the bees in Hidden Valley were nice and docile — for now.
Always check the NPS web site for up to date alerts BEFORE you arrive at the park (and don’t have cell service)
All of these campgrounds have pit toilets. Only Black Rock and Cottonwood have flush toilets, and they cost $20.00/night, so $5.00/night more than the others. I found the pit toilets at Hidden Valley exceptionally well maintained. They were cleaned regularly and had ample toilet paper and never smelled bad. Every campground has multiple, well-positioned toilets and trash/recycling stations.
Beware of bees
I was not expecting bees. But all the toilets seem to attract bees. Apparently, they come for the moisture, especially after the rangers hose out the floors. I always found at least a dozen bees in and around the toilet at Hidden Valley. They were very calm and I got used to them pretty quickly – but I did watch where I stepped and where I sat.
If you are allergic to or afraid of bees, these toilets will freak you out, so be forewarned.
Also, the toilets up at Keys Point are overrun with bees, and they seemed much more aggressive than the bees at Hidden Valley. There’s a warning sign near these toilets informing visitors to watch for bees. I was very comfortable with the calm bees over at Hidden Valley, but the Keys View bees were SCARY. I opted for my porta potty.
The other campgrounds
The remaining campgrounds along the main drag through the park are Belle, White Tank, and Cottonwood. Belle and White tank would be fine in the summertime and are up around 4000 feet elevation. However, Cottonwood is down at the south entrance and pretty far away from the main sites. It also is a lot hotter in the summer. This would be my last choice unless I was planning one of the hikes that start here.
Note that once you move south of White Tank, you are moving into the Colorado Desert and the environment changes. The Joshua trees disappear as do the pale granite boulders. This region of the park is a lot hotter and not as picturesque, or at least it is picturesque in a more traditional desert fashion.
Get all the individual campground details here.
Detailed maps of each campground are here.
Joshua Tree NP is one of the most popular places in the world for rock climbing. All I can say is, I met some very nice climbers while I was there, but I am not a climber. If that is your schtick then click here or here for more information. I’ll never try and cover this topic. Nope. Not for me.
I am almost 60, reasonably fit, but feeling some aches and pains, and I plan my hiking accordingly. The National Park Service provides a handout when you enter with all the hikes in the park. I stuck to easy to moderate hikes and didn’t attempt any strenuous mountain peaks or super long hikes. It was over 90 at midday when I was camping, so I kept the hikes to morning or evening and under 2 hours. You have to carry your water with you – bring at least a quart for a 1-2 hour hike in the summer.
Barker Dam trail is one of the more popular hikes in Joshua Tree. It is well-marked, pretty flat, and takes you out to Barker Dam and a small reservoir of water. It was lovely.
OK — I did do some rock climbing on this hike, but not on purpose. It’s probably better-called bouldering, but it felt like rock climbing to me. See the photo below? I climbed all the way down from the tippy top. And yes, I was a bit scared, but it built character. That is why we go on adventures, right?
During my Barker Dam hike, I couldn’t resist taking the extension trail to see the petroglyphs. Of course, after I reached the petroglyphs I missed a trail marker and ended up hiking an extra mile or so – glad I brought lots of water. Seriously — bring lots of water.
It was totally worth the extra mile, though, to see the collection of glyphs here. Some have unfortunately though been damaged (grrrrr) by vandals.
Hidden Valley Trail
Hidden Valley is a great trail – my favorite in the park. It helped that I could hike to it from my campsite so I went more than once. It made me pause to imagine the valley covered once in lush grass and used as a hideaway for cattle rustlers.
You can also look over all the hike options here.
Plenty of easy and moderate hiking trails were available.
On this trip, I hiked Barker Dam, Hidden Valley, Skull Rock, Arch Rock, Cholla Cactus Garden, Lost Horse Mine, and Keys View. Of these, only Lost Horse Mine was moderate. This was just right for me in the heat. I’ll save the mountain summits for a winter trip.
Skull Rock is a fun stop. Guess what? It looks like a skull. There are several trails all around this area and some go over to Jumbo Rocks Campground. I got a bit lost again, but after backtracking I finally found my van. Getting lost wasn’t the worst thing though as it led me to an entire boulder top covered in cool rock cairns.
Arch Rock Trail
Arch Rock Trail is a relatively short flat out and back hike and is perfect for the heat of the day. It starts near the White Tank campground.
One day I drove from Hidden Valley around to the 29 Palms park entrance. This was a beautiful drive crossing several ecosystems and gave me a solid feel for the vastness of this park (more area than Rhode Island).
Driving south through the Colorado Desert
I also took my time driving to the south entrance (where I exited the park at the end of my stay). The drive south took me through a patch of Ocotillo and the Cholla Cactus Garden. Joshua trees disappear at the lower elevations of the Colorado Desert and it is a lot hotter. Other than small excursions to see these sites, I’ll wait until winter to return and explore this region of Joshua Tree in detail.
Cottonwood Oasis was a perfect shady spot to eat lunch and explore a very different ecosystem.
Native habitat of the protected California desert tortoise
My dream was to see a desert tortoise, but alas, I only found signs alerting me to watch for them. If you do have the fortune of spotting one – don’t touch it. Just watch. This is an endangered species, and they belong in the park. Keep them safe!
iNaturalist is my new favorite App
I did see a lot of blooming flowers, lizards, and jackrabbits, though. Every morning the lizards entertained me doing their morning push-ups on the rocks outside my van. I also got a chance to use my new favorite app, iNaturalist. Of course, I had to wait for cell service, but every photo I later loaded into this crowdsourced app came up with an identification. It was WAY better than ID’ing things with a guidebook.
iNaturalist is unbelievably easy to use. You just load up your photo and ask the app to identify it. Looks like those tiny flowers are smallseed sandmat. Very cool
My lizard friend was identified by iNaturalist as a common side-blotched lizard.
I’ll be back
Now that I’ve had a taste of Joshua Tree RV camping, I know I’ll be back. My week there far exceeded my expectations for the trip. I slowed down, unwound, and explored a landscape unlike any other on this planet. There’s still more to explore and some peaks to climb – so I’ll be back. Next time I’ll explore another season.
If you enjoyed Joshua Tree, think about heading on to Arizona. I’ve posted a wonderful 2-week itinerary to take you through all the best of Central Arizona.
I understand it isn’t easy traveling right now. If you crave a taste of the desert, but can’t get away try some gastronomic tourism instead. California’s desert region is famous for its dates – the best quality in the world. Treat yourself and your family to some scrumptious date bread. I share my Aunt Betty’s recipe here. I promise you will love it (even if you are gluten-free).
I appreciate all my readers. If you are new here, please join the growing SSSNOOlife community. Click on the image below to sign up for my blog email list today – and get a crazy fun tip for leveling your van or RV without any technical gadgets.